On Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

By Rachel MacFarland

It almost seems a fool’s task to review a book that has been reviewed a thousand times before, a book that many teens are required to read in high school, but I recently came across an article on LitHub (an online source for literary culture) in which Vonnegut entered the throngs of men being “cancelled.” The article’s author hadn’t herself read Vonnegut until she noticed a trend of young men putting him down as their “favorite author” on Tinder. The author then did a dive into Vonnegut, and promptly pegged him a sexist (I suspect the Boys of Tinder simply put down a writer they had heard of, and this sweet girl took them—eesh—at their word). To be sure, this young woman’s dates sounded awful, but dates have sucked for a very long time, BV and AV—Before Vonnegut and After Vonnegut. And while I won’t say that Vonnegut wasn’t sexist at times (I am too—just look at the actor Sam Heughan. Seriously, look at him), I am here to defend Vonnegut’s honor, specifically in the name of Slaughterhouse Five

I didn’t read Slaughterhouse Five until I was 26; it was assigned as part of an entire graduate seminar centered on Vonnegut’s writings. I was too naïve for this book then, and after this second reading, I suspect I still am, because war makes fools of us all. I kept finding my own grandpa in the text, because like Vonnegut, he was also a prisoner of war in WW2. I also realized how very little I remembered from the first time I read this book. The whole experience of rereading felt like an excavation, unearthing memories of my grandpa, of war stories he told and those he never did, and the utter sadness of Vonnegut’s voice. As I read, I remembered. But had I not been going over these old bones, I’d be none the wiser to the dinosaur. Unaware of a once-giant. 

Kurt Vonnegut/Public Domain.

And such is Vonnegut. Not in his own estimation—he writes himself with as much chest-puffing as a broom handle. But he bends space and time with his writing, often in the breadth of one or two sentences. The language itself is simple, modest, casual, old Levi’s, a ratty sweatshirt, a bummed cigarette, but the mind that works such well-worn language—it’s the mind of a master. 

If, in your American education, you’ve somehow sidestepped reading Vonnegut, here’s the basic plot of Slaughterhouse-Five: Billy Pilgrim is taken prisoner by the Germans during WW2 and is moved, with a whole herd of American prisoners, to an emptied slaughterhouse in the city of Dresden, several days before British and American troops bomb the hell out of it, destroying the city, killing 135,000 people. Billy survives the bombing by taking shelter in an underground meat locker, and later becomes a successful optometrist, becomes enamored with a science-fiction writer named Kilgore Trout, and begins experiencing life as if he himself is a character in a Kilgore Trout novel. He becomes unstuck from space and time, traveling between the moments of his own life, and also to another planet, Tralfamadore, where he is kept like a zoo animal by the Tralfamadorians, who “can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti,” and, similarly, humans are seen “as great millepedes ‘with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other.”

Simple, right?

Those are the bones (except the bit about star spaghetti and human millipedes; I couldn’t resist repeating that imagery, a mind-bending slap to our Fitbit-measured heads). And while you can easily surmise that there’s some heavy matter in a book about the travesties of an unromanced and unheroic take on war, Vonnegut moves through these atrocities easily, like blood, water, and salt—all the liquid flow of the matter that makes us human. He doesn’t preach, he supplicates. He doesn’t condemn, he shrugs. He doesn’t boast, he sighs. He has so much love for humans, despite the terrible horrors he has experienced on their account. You know much of these are his personal experiences, because he writes himself into the narrative, moving like a ghost, sometimes as Billy Pilgrim, sometimes Kilgore Trout, and other times, himself. If it sounds confusing, it isn’t. Not even a little. If anything, it’s too simple, too bare. So much so that he’s been dumped on high school kids, when really, he should be required reading for 35-year-olds. And then maybe again at 55, then again at 70.

And if he’s ever properly discussed via Tinder hook-ups, I’d love to hear it. 

Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse.

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